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Empathy, closeness, and distance in non-profit accountability

Ericka Costa (Department of Economics and Management, University of Trento , Trento, Italy)
Caterina Pesci (Department of Economics and Management, University of Trento , Trento, Italy)
Michele Andreaus (Department of Economics and Management, University of Trento , Trento, Italy)
Emanuele Taufer (Department of Economics and Management, University of Trento , Trento, Italy)

Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal

ISSN: 0951-3574

Article publication date: 10 July 2018

Issue publication date: 15 January 2019




Drawing on the phenomenological concepts of “empathy” and “communal emotions” developed by Edith Stein (1917, 1922), the purpose of this paper is to discuss the co-existence both of the legitimacy and accountability perspectives in voluntarily delivered social and environmental reporting (SER), based on different “levels of empathy” towards different stakeholders.


The paper adopts an interpretive research design, drawn from Stein’s concept of empathy by using a mixed-method approach. A manual content analysis was performed on 393 cooperative banks’ (CB) social and environmental reports from 2005 to 2013 in Italy, and 14 semi-structured interviews.


The results show that CBs voluntarily disclose information in different ways to different stakeholders. According to Stein, the phenomenological concept of empathy, and its understanding within institutions, allows us to interpret these multiple perspectives within a single social and environmental report. Therefore, when the process of acquiring knowledge in the CB–stakeholder relationship is complete and mentalised (level 3, re-enactive empathy), the SER holds high informative power, consistent with the accountability perspective; on the contrary, when this process is peripheral and perceptional (level 1, basic empathy), the SER tends to provide more self-assessment information, attempting to portray the bank in a positive light, which is consistent with the legitimacy perspective.


The concept of empathy introduced in this paper can assist in interpreting the interactions between an organisation and different stakeholders within the same social and environmental report. Moreover, the approach adopted in this paper considers different stakeholders simultaneously, thus responding to previous concerns regarding the lack of focus on multiple stakeholders.



Comments received from colleagues at the 22nd UK CSEAR (Sept. 2010), 3rd Italian CSEAR (Sept. 2010), 8th Spanish CSEAR (July 2011), 23 th UK CSEAR (Sept. 2011), EAA (May 2013), Italian CSEAR (June 2016) and 29th UK CSEAR (Sept 2017) were extremely useful. The authors also thank the members of the Accounting Group of the Essex Business School for their thoughtful comments received during the seminar (October 2017). A special thanks goes to Teeroven Soobaroyen, Massimo Contrafatto, Carlos Larrinaga and Giovanna Michelon for their constructive comments on earlier version of this paper. The authors would also like to thank Dr Lucia Riolfi and Dr Federica Moro for her contributions to collecting the empirical data for this research. This research was supported by grant from the Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Trento e Rovereto and Euricse.


Costa, E., Pesci, C., Andreaus, M. and Taufer, E. (2019), "Empathy, closeness, and distance in non-profit accountability", Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, Vol. 32 No. 1, pp. 224-254.



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